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Start your X Prize engines

PIAXP / X Prize Foundation
SSI Racing's 2SSIC, the ZAP Alias electric car and Aptera's three-wheeler were
among the X Prize entrants on display at last month's Detroit Auto Show.

The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize program has added a few twists to its $10 million competition for energy-efficient motor vehicles. The competitions that matter the most won't be held in public view, but will be conducted instead behind closed doors.

When the contest had its kickoff two years ago, X Prize officials said the competition would climax with a couple of rounds of "real-world" cross-country racing, incorporating city as well as highway driving. Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, even mused about rerunning the New York-to-Seattle road race that jump-started the Model T's popularity back in 1909.

The public will still get a look at X Prize cars in Michigan, during viewing opportunities at the State Capitol in Lansing in April and at the Michigan International Speedway outside Detroit in July. No judging will take place at those events, however. Instead, the judges will put the vehicles through closed-door road tests at the speedway, starting April 26. The field will be winnowed down to 20 vehicles during further tests in June and July.

The finals aren't the final word, however. The last contest comes in August, when the top finalists undergo dynamometer testing at the Environmental Protection Agency's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, and at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. All the numbers are plugged into a formula to select the winners, who will receive their checks at a September prize ceremony in Washington. This timeline lays out the details.

The aim of the competition is to reward teams that come up with efficient, clean, safe and affordable automotive vehicles. The key target is to surpass the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon fuel economy, while satisfying all the standards for safety and emissions that have to be met for a marketable car. Half of the $10 million purse is set aside for the winning "mainstream" car, capable of seating four. The other half would go to "alternative" two-seaters: $2.5 million for the side-by-side winner, $2.5 million for the top tandem.

It's been a long two years for the X Prize organizers, and they as well as the contestants are looking forward to starting their engines in the spring. "We couldn't be more thrilled to partner with Michigan as we enter the most exciting phase of the competition," Diamandis said in an announcement sent out during last month's Detroit Auto Show.

Some commentators sounded a little less thrilled. Autoblog Green's Sebastian Blanco, for example, noted that the prize program "has lost a lot of potential and participating teams over the course of the past few years" - and bemoaned the fact that the on-track events would take place exclusively at the Michigan speedway. X Prize Cars' Eric Boyd said the organizers "removed all excitement from the prize" by going to a closed-door format.

"That's not what I signed up for, and I imagine many of the recent big team losses are related to this - surely the teams had inside knowledge on the direction the prize is going," Boyd wrote. "The big problem with this new timeline is that the prize will likely never enter the mainstream with this schedule."

It seems as if the green-auto industry is in the midst of a reality check right now. That's due in part to the increased scrutiny being given to the potential payoffs from plug-ins. The troubles that are being encountered with Toyota's hybrids, once the darlings of the auto industry, definitely don't help. Will the coming Automotive X Prize events give fuel-efficient cars a boost, or is the $10 million contest fated to get stuck in low gear?

More about X Prizes:

  • Competitors in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize program gathered last week for a summit at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Entrepreneurs discussed their plans to send privately funded landers to the lunar surface just as the NASA announced the cancellation of its own back-to-the-moon program. NASA's new plan emphasizes a "flexible path" to exploration beyond Earth orbit, as well as a greater reliance on commercial spaceships. This was music to the ears of many at the GLXP summit, including Diamandis. "It's about capitalism, its about competition, it's about entrepreneurialism," Diamandis said in an X Prize postmortem.
  • The X Prize Foundation's next $10 million competition may encourage the development of more advanced brain-computer interfaces. Check out this posting at Singularity Hub for an in-depth discussion.

Correction for 11:13 a.m. ET Feb. 10: I've fixed the reference to Michigan's State Capitol so that it's in its rightful place in Lansing. Thanks to all for setting me straight.

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